by Esther Shuker
Chag Sameach and welcome everyone.
The inspiration behind my talk today came a few weeks ago when Edwin and I were invited to a Shabbaton in Reading. He was a guest speaker together with Rabbi Rafi Zarum, principal of LSJS and one of the brains behind the Limmud Conference. He attended with his wife Jacqueline Nicholls – an artist and educator – they have been at the forefront of innovative methods of Jewish education for many years.
Jacqueline spoke about the Omer in a fascinating way - the journey we take from Pesach to Shavuot and the transformation that can potentially occur during those 49 days.
We start counting the Omer from the 2nd day of Pesach and we count upwards until we reach Shavuot, the day after the 49th day. The relevance of this counting can be interpreted on various levels.
Primarily, we know that the sacrifice offered on Passover was made out of barley. In ancient times, barley was used as animal fodder. On Shavuot, the sacrifice offered was made of wheat. Wheat is often used as a metaphor for the human capacity to use our intelligence. While an animal can eat a fruit, a leaf or just barley, it requires human intelligence and creativity to make bread.
Therefore, the Jewish people refined themselves from a people who had base cravings and yearnings, like animals – after all they were on the 49th level of impurity – to becoming truly evolved humans.
We had gone from being physically free from enslavement in Mitzrayim to being spiritually free.
It is not possible to be physically free without some kind of spiritual direction – all that does is make us slaves to our own personal urges or desires.
If Pesach represents freedom of the body; Shavuot represents freedom of the soul. If Pesach took the Jewish people out of Egypt; Shavuot took Egypt out of the Jewish people. (I wish I had come up with those ideas myself ….).
What links the two is the Omer.
Whilst counting the days of the Omer, we are focusing on the seven aspects of Godliness which our souls contain. These are Chessed – kindness, Gevurah – empowerment, Tiferet – beauty, Netzach – infinity, Hod – gratitude, Yesod – foundation and Malchut – kingship. The period becomes a kind of lesson in mindfulness, being aware of ourselves and our character traits, aiming to become better people and closer to God, working on those middot we wish to improve, peeling away and eradicating those habits which hold us back. In short, we are like diamonds progressing from the rough stage to the polished state by the time Shavuot comes round.
Jacqueline took this idea one step further: she felt very strongly that if, at the end of each day, she did not feel she had grown, then she was not fulfilling the requirements of the Omer period. She felt it was difficult to just focus on character traits and, being an artist, she came up with the idea of drawing the Omer.
By choosing a theme, her Drawing the Omer project was a wonderful idea for her own personal journey. One year her topic was ‘I am still alive’ and she looked for discarded objects, damaged items, like twigs, remnants of material… whatever came her way each day and she would draw them and write ‘I am still alive’ on each drawing. Another year she chose the contents of her friends’ handbags and drew them without naming the owners.
By taking on this project, Jacqueline was using the Omer period to change herself and her world.
I found this a most beautiful way of growing throughout these 49 days and making each day count. I instantly felt I wanted to adapt it for my own Omer.
I find it hard each year to retain the enthusiasm and to focus on the particular traits that need polishing. The intention is always there - to try to be a better person, to not become angry, to be more patient with my family, to smile more … it is hard work!!
And each year, I feel I am letting myself down.
Whilst chatting to a friend, who is here today but shall remain nameless, to see if we could find a way of truly transforming ourselves during the Omer, we came up with an idea we thought was achievable: at the end of each day during the Omer we would make a note of something that had made us happy during that day as well as a good deed we had done.
The idea was to that we would be mindful each day of what we were doing with our time, all the while acknowledging the beautiful and the good in our lives.
For example, on one of the days I wrote about visiting the bluebell woods with the Woodside Walkers group and how happy it made me feel. Being able to encourage my daughter and her cousin to go there the same day was a boon. That they loved it as much as I did made me feel I had done well to recommend it. Another example was being able to say Kaddish in Prague for my father whose yahrzeit fell during that shul trip. On other days I noted down a visit to see someone, a lovely walk, and even finding a parking space in Golders Green!
The fact that we were noting down our experiences each day made us appreciate them for longer, as well as reinforcing all the good that surrounds us.
It has been a most fulfilling exercise - a beautiful opportunity to try to become the best person I can be.
Even if there’s a long way to go, I feel I’ve taken the first step on my journey.